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Playing Politics With the Poor: The Case of TANF Waivers

David Callahan

A core pillar of conservative ideology is that many federal responsibilities should be devolved to the states. A far away central bureaucracy, the argument goes, is inherently less likely to respect liberty and act efficiently than smaller state governments -- ideally run by part-time legislators who also have "real jobs" and thus know the people's business.

So it was that, back in the Bush years, conservatives argued that states should be given more leeway to manage welfare programs and Republican governors lobbied Washington for waivers under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the reform law Congress passed in 1996. The idea was that states would experiment and innovate, finding better ways to move welfare recipients into the workforce and accomplish other goals of the law.

In 2005, 29 Republican governors signed a letter supporting a reauthorization of TANF that would include more waivers to state governments. Among those signing the letter was Governor Mitt Romney.

That request found a receptive audience in the Bush Administration. Tommy Thompson, Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2005, had pushed a proposal for granting states more flexibility on TANF early in his tenure.

Such greater flexibility never came to pass during the Bush years, but some Republican governors kept up the push once Obama was in office -- like Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Richard Herbert of Utah. A document prepared by the Utah government in support of waivers in 2011 said:

Utah is especially interested in the development of waiver authority in the TANF grant. Utah has the desire to expend TANF dollars in the most efficient and effective manner supporting the kind of services and activities that promote initial employment, wage progression, and employment retention.

Last month, Republican governors finally got their wish when the Obama Administration issued new rules granting states more flexibility in administering TANF's work requirements. HHS announced it would use its authority to "approve waiver demonstrations to challenge states to engage in a new round of innovation that seeks to find more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment." But states would have to demonstrate that their approaches achieved the work goals of the 1996 law through rigorous evaluation.

As it happens, the Obama Administration's approach to granting waivers is not what some conservatives wanted, believing that the administration was overstepping its authority, and Heritage immediately condemned the move -- with many Republicans falling in line behind a false narrative that Obama had "gutted" the work requirements under TANF.

"President Obama now wants to strip the established work requirements from welfare," Romney said in July. And this week Romney's campaign unleashed an attack ad saying that "Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."

Tommy Thompson, who is running for a Senate seat in Wisconsin, had equally harsh words in an op-ed, calling the policy part of "the president's leftist ideological rampage. . . . It is not an exaggeration to say the president’s decision to hand out checks without requiring work is blatantly calling the question on what kind of nation we will be." Thompson never mentioned in the op-ed that he was a leading advocate of waivers on work requirements during the Bush years -- just as Romney never mentioned his support for the same policy.

To his credit, Utah Governor Richard Herbert has stuck with his original position, supporting the Obama's Administration's move: "Utah's request for a waiver stems from a desire for increased customization of the program to maximize employment among Utah’s welfare recipients."

This whole episode is yet more evidence of the inherent fungibility of conservative ideology. Yes, the right is all for more devolution to the states -- unless that devolution is orchestrated by a Democratic president.

Oh, and there's something else: Accusing the nation's first black president of wanting to just "send you your welfare check" is potent stuff -- potent enough, clearly, to trump the actual truth.

Meanwhile, of course, none of the candidates are addressing the biggest problem with TANF -- which is that the 1996 law effectively stopped welfare from being what it's supposed to be -- a safety net that spreads wider during hard times to help the neediest Americans. As we have written here, TANF caseloads have barely budged during the Great Recession and that's a travesty of public policy. This is what the candidates should be talking about.